Sunday, August 3, 2014

Neil Armstrong, Project Apollo and Missed Opportunities

July 20, 2014 marked the 45th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing and Neil Armstrong becoming the first human to set foot on the moon. Partly because of the anniversary, I just finished reading Jay Barbree's biography of Mr. Armstrong, simply titled "Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight." Mr. Barbree is a veteran NBC News reporter who has covered every manned space launch. He was a personal friend of Mr. Armstrong.

I highly recommend Mr. Barbree's book. It fully chronicles the life of an American hero. From his days as a fighter pilot in Korea, a test pilot for the X-15 rocket plane (a real beast), an astronaut, and his post-astronaut career as a professor and as Vice-Chair of the Commission investigating the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, Mr. Armstrong can be characterized as highly intelligent, cool under the highest pressure situations, and able to think through highly complex situations. He was regularly described by his fellow astronauts as the best pilot they ever saw. Through it all, he never sought publicity, shunned the public spotlight, and remained true to his Midwestern roots. He was a man of genuine modesty.

Although Mr. Barbree's biography of Mr. Armstrong is inspirational, the book also provides an inside view of the space race, a period of less than twelve years that began with the Soviet Union's launch of  the Sputnik satellite in October 1957 (to the dismay of the American populace) and ended with the Apollo 11 landing. The race really began in earnest with the Soviet Union's launch of Yuri Gagarin as the first man in space on April 12, 1961, which was followed shortly by the U.S. launch of Alan Shepard on suborbital flight on May 5, 1961. Despite having a substantial initial lead, the Soviet Union never made it to the moon.

I was born in August 1957. The space race dominated my childhood. As a boy interested in airplanes and rockets, the astronauts were my heroes. I read everything I could get my hands on about space. I recall watching the Mercury launches on our family's old Magnavox black and white television. I watched the shadowy images of Neil Armstrong stepping on the lunar surface in July 1969, shortly before my twelfth birthday. 

A substantial portion of the U.S. population never experienced the space race or the moon landing. The median age of the U.S. population is about 38 years. I have not been able to find a statistic on the percentage of the population born after the moon landing in 1969, but it it clear that a majority of the population was born after that date. 

Because so many people did not experience what I experienced as a youth regarding the space race and Project Apollo, it is perhaps worth an attempt, however inadequate it may be, to try to put into words the excitement of those days. Despite the social upheaval of the decade, there was very little public dissent about the space race: The astronauts were heroes, catching the Soviet Union was necessary, and failure was simply not an option. 

Because of the space race, science, math and engineering were cool. Higher education was in vogue. The future appeared limitless. When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, the country celebrated; actually, the world celebrated.

It is really impossible to put into perspective the achievements of NASA during the space race.  In slightly over eight years, NASA went from putting a single man in a suborbital flight to taking three men to the moon, landing two of them on the moon, and returning all three safely home. Think about it: All of this was accomplished in eight years. 

I have tried to think of something to put this into perspective for younger readers. Although nothing is really satisfactory, consider the iPhone. The iPhone was introduced in January 2007 and was rightly considered a great technological innovation. Now, over seven years later, Apple has introduced a series of incremental improvements, but the basic functionality of the original iPhone has not changed greatly. And to compare the iPhone to Project Apollo only demonstrates that what passes for innovation today cannot hold a candle to what happened during the space race.

Since Project Apollo, we have lost our way in space. The space shuttle, although impressive in some respects, was flawed and never achieved its original goals. Further, it was not able to do anything other than put astronauts and cargo in low earth orbit. Since the last space shuttle flight in July 2011, we have been unable to put astronauts in space, and have been reduced to hitching rides on Russian Soyuz rockets, a system that uses decades-old technology. (At least the Russians were smart enough to keep the old technology available in the absence of a more modern replacement).

The current state of our space program should be a national embarrassment. Before his death, Mr. Armstrong testified before Congress. He tried to explain the need to return to the moon as a precursor to a mission to Mars. Unfortunately, the counsel of Mr. Armstrong and his colleagues has been ignored.

There is a great deal of discussion today about the need to increase funding for "STEM" initiatives, referring to science, technology, engineering and math, and to increase student interest in these important disciplines. Many others have pointed out the importance of national preeminence in these disciplines to technological innovation, the economy, and even national security.

The question is how to motivate students to pursue these important disciplines. We have an obvious example: On September 12, 1962, President Kennedy made his famous speech calling for a journey to the moon and back by the end of the decade: "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."

The goal being stated, NASA accomplished it, supported by a legion of scientists and engineers. The entire venture provided high-skilled, high-paying jobs to tens of thousands, with spin-off benefits to the economy that continue to this day, although the effect is waning. 

The main objection to the manned space program has been cost. Consider this: The cost of Project Apollo in 2008 dollars was $98 billion according to one analysis. In 2009, the U.S. spent $800 billion on an ill-considered economic stimulus that has yielded few concrete benefits. What would have happened if instead--or simply as part of the stimulus--President Obama had called for a national effort to return to the moon by 2016 (which would have allowed same time that it took NASA to accomplish the same goal decades ago) and to land man on Mars by 2025, and had asked Congress to fund it? Instead of talking about "STEM," there would be a national initiative establishing a clear goal that, to use President Kennedy's words, would "organize and measure the best of our energies and skills."  Even more importantly, it would have made STEM cool again. And it sure would have helped the economy.

Unfortunately, we do not have leaders with President Kennedy's vision. Equally unfortunately, heroes such as Mr. Armstrong had to live their final days witnessing our country basically throwing away their accomplishments and legacy. It had to be an extreme disappointment to Mr. Armstrong, just as it must continue to disappoint the remaining aging heroes who formed the team that put a man on the moon.

We need to find our way back to space.